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THEATER REVIEW: “Life of Riley” is not the best effort by Alan Ayckbourn

Just like the stripper Mazeppa in “Gypsy,” whose advice to new talent is “you gotta get a gimmick,” playwright Alan Ayckbourn has trained his fans to expect a gimmick in his plays.

In “Life of Riley,” it’s this: The titular character never appears onstage – but he still manages to wreak havoc in the lives of six of his closest friends.

One of those friends is physician Colin (Colin McPhillamy), who lets the news about Riley (that he has cancer and has been given six months to live) slip to gossipy wife Kathryn (Henny Russell).

Soon the whole sextet knows the story, touching off regrets, reminiscences and revelations about good ol’ George. The group consists of George’s ex-wife Monica (Nisi Sturgis), now living with taciturn farmer Simeon (David Bishins); businessman Jack (Ray Chambers) and his wife Tamsin (Dana Green), a mini-skirted former hairdresser with fingernails that preclude gardening; and Tilly (Rebecca Gold), Jack’s teenage daughter by a former marriage, who only appears in the last scene.

There’s another gimmick here: some of the group are rehearsing for a community theater staging of Ayckbourn’s “Relatively Speaking.” When one actor pulls out, someone suggests George be recruited to take over the part.

That’s the plot, such as it is. The stage of the Old Globe’s White Theatre is divided into four gardens (one belongs to the absent George), where the action takes place.

McPhillamy is terrific though puzzling as Colin. McPhillamy’s acting is top-notch, but it’s difficult to accept the notion of a physician as vague and slow on the draw as Colin seems to be.

Russell is suitably annoying as the power in this family, though part of that must be laid at the feet of Colin, whose emotional vacuum has left her bereft of the human connection she craves.

Sturgis’s Monica has the guilt concession locked up, wondering whether her departure precipitated his imminent demise in some way. That she feels she needs to leave Simeon (albeit temporarily) to care for George speaks volumes about their relationship as well.

Bishins is fine in the limited role of Simeon, and Green and Chambers play well off each other as Tamsin and the philandering Jack.

Ayckbourn has written 75 plays, twice as many as Shakespeare. Unfortunately, “Life of Riley” lacks his usual strengths: interesting characters, an engaging plot and clever lines. “Life of Riley” is really a long sitcom, predictable and frankly dull.

The details

“Life of Riley” plays through June 5 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.